THE BESTIE’S COUSIN
Amanda Collins silently closed the door to the living room-slash-kitchen area and patted herself on the back. She couldn’t believe how easy it was to distract Clara Little, her best friend, with her fiancé, Mr. Boring—better known as Prince David, the Duke of Leeds. I deserve to win an Academy Award for how brilliant that acting was. Thank you, thank you. I’d like to dedicate this award to my parents, my director, and most of all, my adoring fans!
Clara owed Amanda for how much effort she’d put into getting David here from London. Brownie points to C’s man for knowing how to fix his mistakes so quickly. Amanda wished she had a man of her own as thoughtful and compassionate as David. Her relationships had always been more on the casual side, never serious.
Turning her thoughts to one of her other passions—shopping—Amanda daydreamed of Clara carrying several large shopping bags from South Coast Plaza’s high-end shops. Perhaps David wouldn’t mind footing the bill. She laughed to herself.
She would never do that to him. Half the fun was earning things from her own hard work. As Indiana Jones said, “Real rewards await those who choose wisely.” She wouldn’t say no to a gift card in the event he offered her one though.
Speaking of shopping, it was time to head off to the grocery store to pick up some much-needed supplies for dinner. If she were going to feed Clara’s prince, she needed more than instant Mac and Cheese and microwave dinners. As a flight attendant, Amanda was never home much and usually preferred simple fare that was quick and easy. With her current guests, however, she actually needed to cook.
David’s team of protection officers would probably want dessert as well. Slipping on her flip-flops and a light jacket, Amanda made a mental checklist and snuck out the front door as quietly as possible.
Amanda walked right into the man standing awkwardly on the apartment doorstep. “Oof … hi … Can I help you? Are you lost or something?” Her eyes roamed over the tousled, wind-swept, sandy blond hair and blue eyes of the man before her as he reached out his arms to steady her. Amanda’s body instantly reacted as his soft hands lingered a moment longer than necessary.
Looks like a lost surfer dude. Why did he look so familiar? I’d never forget a man like this! Feels like running into a wall of muscle. He’s strong, too, with quick reflexes, based on his catching me so quickly.
The man laughed. “Terribly sorry. I was looking for my cousin. He left me in such a rush, I didn’t have time to ask what the apartment number was, and he isn’t answering his mobile.”
Amanda screeched as she recognized the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward, her celebrity crush. This is not happening right now. I don’t look cute, and oh, my, gawd … Prince Edward! How could I not recognize him immediately? That accent! His voice! I’m staring at my future husband. Say something. Don’t make this more awkward. How long have I been staring? Too long!
Prince Edward didn’t appear too fazed by her sudden screeching. As a royal, he’d probably been exposed to many different facets of public behavior from an early age. Women especially were drawn to the heir of the British throne. Prince Edward laughed and didn’t seem at all intimidated by Amanda’s recognition of him. Instead, he perked up and stood taller.
Amanda stuck out her hand. “Hi! I’m Amanda. I’m the bestie. You are even more gorgeous in person. Oh snap. I didn’t mean to say that out loud. I’m being so awkward right now.” Well that first impression just went out the door. She’d only get one shot at this. She’d been begging David for weeks to meet Edward too. Of all the times for her to meet Prince Edward, it would be the moment she was dashing out to the grocery store.
“Call me Eddie. You must be Collins. I’ve heard quite a few things about you. I’m awkward myself. Now, what do you say you invite the security team lads and me into the apartment before the press discovers our secret location.” He winked at her.
Amanda wanted to melt in delight into the sidewalk. Adding to Amanda’s mortification was the realization that four muscular, attractive-looking men stood on either side of Eddie, curiously watching the interaction.
The blood rushed to her cheeks. Her face felt hot. Her palms were sweaty. Why now? What has he heard about me? Do I even care? Hasn’t stopped me before. A variety of emotions ran through her head as she realized she was meeting the literal man of her dreams. “Ah well … I’ve already made a stupid blunder. You might as well come in. I guess I’ll be cooking for a lot more handsome men than just David and his guys tonight.”
This calls for some grilling. Men like this must like meat. Amanda poked her head around Eddie. “Are ya’ll okay with BBQ?” Amanda heard a murmur of agreement as she signaled Eddie and the team to follow her into her apartment. She doubted David had given much thought to his cousin or the protection officers the moment he saw Clara.
Eddie linked arms with Amanda and walked her inside. Amanda inhaled the scent of his cologne. Notes of lavender, cedar, and citrus rolled off him as the soft cashmere fabric of his suit jacket brushed against her. Amanda felt like a volcano ready to erupt in pleasure at being touched by Prince Eddie.
“I like you already, Collins. Everything David and Clara have told me is true. What do you say we leave the lovebirds alone, and you can have dinner with just me and the lads? Do you surf by any chance?”
He wants to surf! Is this our first date? Well, maybe a non-date. Why am I even thinking about this? Nod your head or do something girl!
“You didn’t even have to ask! And this is Southern California. Not everyone knows how to surf, but I’d be more than happy to learn alongside you. Usually I just pretend I know what to do, like they do in Hollywood.” Amanda felt herself being drawn in by Eddie’s intoxicating princely smile, the same one that greeted her every time she unlocked her phone. He was so much better in real life.
Finding a friend to teach Eddie and four muscular security men how to surf and snorkel provided amusement for many of the beachgoers at La Jolla Coves, not far from San Diego. That was the preferred activity of the group. All of them took to surfing as if they had been doing it their entire lives. Amanda joked they were Navy Seals and preferred to watch the group from a distance on her boogie board. She wasn’t as strong a swimmer as the men. Thankfully not a single member of the public had recognized them yet.
Amanda’s heart had burst at the sight of Eddie’s excitement at using an underwater camera to capture the garibaldi and other fish that lived just off the coast. He brought so much joy and excitement to something Amanda had done countless times. I should get those developed before our next outing. At this rate, Eddie’s going to have a hundred, thousand photos to worry about.
Amanda had been uncertain if meeting her lifelong crush would ruin the image she had built up of him. As an avid follower of the British royal family, she already had a plethora of intel on Eddie. Some of it had worked to her advantage, but most of the time, Eddie was much different than the way social media portrayed him. Was he as perfect as she had always dreamed? No. Eddie was human. He had a habit of speaking before thinking and could be lazy. All that aside, Amanda was coming to know Eddie as a person. Already, they seemed to get on well, bonding through David and Clara. Amanda hoped this might bode well for their future.
Currently, Amanda was loading Eddie’s rented SUV up with grocery bags. Well, his team was. Amanda took on her preferred role of supervisor again. Why do all the heavy lifting when you had a built-in crew to do so for you? Despite the offer from the protection officers to fend for themselves, Amanda advocated strongly for them to let her do the majority of the meal prep. Their conflicting ideas of what constituted a meal differed dramatically.
Who wants Pop-Tarts and waffles every single day? You’d think they could only take so much fast food. Besides, Amanda absolutely loved having the ability to try out new recipes on a person other than herself.
“Is there anywhere in particular you would like us to place the bread or fruit, Ms. Collins?” inquired Jonathan Bowers, the chief protection officer on Eddie’s detail.
“So long as they are on top and not crushed, feel free to put them anywhere. It’s on you if the guys have bruised bananas tomorrow morning,” Amanda joked.
As this was their third trip back from the grocery store this week, the team was now intimately familiar with how to reach Amanda’s apartment from the shop. These men would make her on a first-name basis with every grocery clerk at Vons at this rate. Thankfully, they’d offered to reimburse any grocery expenses. Amanda hadn’t even considered it the first time. Feels like I’m feeding a small army these days. So tempting to use this as an excuse for a new fridge. Should I look up a British grocer too? Or do they prefer California cuisine?
Jonathan opened the door for Amanda who slid into the back seat. Eddie was just finishing up his call home.
“How was the shopping today?” He attempted to sound interested. Amanda rolled her eyes.
“The same as it was the last two times. Honestly. Why do you even come along if you’re just going to stay in the car? Half the fun is exploring the aisles, seeing what there is to buy. You might have a new outlook on shopping if you’d come to Costco with me. Your off-team members certainly enjoyed the adventure,” Amanda shot back, annoyed. “It would be so much easier to learn your food preferences if you actually participated in selecting what you want to eat instead of me having to call you each time.”
The protection officers were true gentlemen. Yes, they were here to protect Eddie, but they enjoyed learning how to cook and taking Amanda’s recommendations for sights to see on their off days. All but one of the team members were bachelors, which explained a lot.
Eddie took his eyes off of his phone. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to escape C and D. They’re so sickeningly in love that they tend to forget I’m even around. I would much rather people-watch from the motor than watch telly all day. I promise to accompany you on your next adventure to Target or Costco. I came along with David to explore America. I was hoping for a trip to Disneyland, but David shot down that idea rather quickly.”
Amanda sighed. Eddie was too dependent on David. He needed to find his own interests and venture outside his comfort zone. She really couldn’t blame him for wanting a break from the happy couple. Clara and David were at the honeymoon stage. Amanda relished being able to escape them too. Just how adventurous a personality did he have when pushed?
The car roared to life and began the ten-minute drive back to the apartment. “Any interesting news from across the pond?” Amanda buckled her seatbelt.
Eddie cracked his knuckles and shook his head. “Nothing noteworthy. My secret has been aired to the public, though. You had better be careful of the Prince of Wales who has fled from the UK to South America to take up the peaceful ways of an alpaca farmer to relieve the stress of royal life.” He rolled down his window a crack, much to the annoyance of the protection officers.
Amanda’s eyes bulged. “Wait, what? That’s the headline in the gossip rags today?” Our own running joke. Her spine tingled in delight.
Every day, the tabloids had attempted to explain Prince Eddie’s sudden disappearance from London’s nightlife scene. She had to hand it to the writers. Every headline was original and pretty cringe-worthy. She’d probably buy the headlines herself if Eddie weren’t around.
Eddie leaned against the side of the door. Amanda, who sat across from him, fought the urge to stare at him each time he moved. There were so many subtle nuances. The way he frowned when he was reading, the way he ran his hand through his hair when he was nervous, the way he crossed his legs and leaned back when he was bored. Amanda committed each gesture to memory.
“I preferred yesterday’s story, declaring that you had decided it was time to reveal your hidden twin brother to the world.” They both laughed. The smile on his face extended all the way to his blue eyes and revealed his handsome dimples. Eddie looked right at Amanda. As their eyes locked, her heart fluttered in excitement.
Amanda’s leg bounced up and down with nervous energy. She cleared her throat. “At least, so far, your trip to America has been running along swimmingly. How are you going to enjoy your last two days here in SoCal? You feel like having dinner with me again? I’m making fried rice and pork chops. New recipe I want everyone’s opinion on.” Amanda cringed as soon as she said it. She had used the new recipe excuse last night. What if Eddie had plans? Amanda knew for certain that David planned to see Clara every available moment he could.
Did it sound like she was trying too hard?
Their conversation was interrupted by the car suddenly speeding up and rapidly changing directions. The burning smell of rubber and the sound of screeching tires reached their ears.
“What was that?” Eddie demanded, gripping the side of the car door for dear life. Amanda would have laughed if it weren’t real life. This from a man who owns a fleet of fancy race cars. Not a thrill seeker then?
“We’re being followed,” Jonathan replied tightly, his eyes peeled to the outside, carefully watching their surroundings as the vehicle picked up speed. “Your safety is our prime concern. We’re headed to a secure location.”
Amanda looked over her shoulder to see a white Chevy Malibu following their every maneuver. The telltale flashing of red and blue lights from the front of the car made Amanda screech, “Pull over!”
Jonathan shot a wide-eyed look behind him and assented to her request. The SUV made it to the farthest lane to the right and abruptly stopped.
Eddie’s face was void of color. The SUV was silent and filled with tension. Amanda had beads of perspiration coming down her face. “You’re being followed by the Orange County police. If we didn’t stop, there is an excellent chance the high-speed pursuit would be aired on T.V.”
Amanda leaned back into her seat. Eddie’s rapid breathing caused Amanda to pat his hand to somewhat reassure him they would be alright. The door of the white Chevy opened. Two police officers rapidly made their way over to the driver’s side door. The protection officer in the driver’s seat rolled down the window.
The police officer’s voice bellowed, “Hands on the wheel until further instructed. Do you understand why you’ve been stopped?”
The protection officer sounded professional as he replied with a negative answer. The officers huffed and asked for his driver’s license, car registration, and insurance card. The driver gripped the wheel so tight his knuckles turned white.
Should I intervene? Amanda glanced at Jonathan, who was on his phone, and at Eddie, whose eyes were wide. Yup. It’s gonna be me. Cue NSYNC soundtrack.
Amanda leaned over Eddie and rolled his window down. She ignored the close proximity to him and the intoxicating scent of cedar and sandalwood. In her best attempt at a cheery voice, she stuck her head outside and said, “Hi, Officer! Look. You’ve actually pulled over a really important person here. Do you recognize Prince Edward?”
Eddie blanched even more. Jonathan dropped his mobile in shock. The officer stopped speaking to the driver and raised his eyes to Amanda. Throwing as much charm into her second Oscar-winning performance, she added, “You’re not going to give the heir to the British throne a ticket are you? It would cause quite an international incident. Doesn’t diplomatic immunity extend to royalty?”
The officer pulled his sunglasses off and pulled his hard stare from Amanda to Eddie. The corners of his eyes widened as it finally sunk in just who Eddie was. He pulled his hat off. “I was only doing a routine stop for the expired registration on this vehicle. I don’t want any trouble. Your Majesty, if you could forgive us here in Orange County for the blunder, it would go a long way with our department.” He awkwardly bowed to Eddie.
Amanda signaled to Eddie that he should say something. She felt guilty as she elbowed him in the ribs to force him to answer the officer. He glared at Amanda and rubbed his chest. Amanda motioned once more for him to answer the awaiting officer.
He cleared his throat. “We can overlook this incident this time around. After all, you were only doing your job.”
The officer’s body language relaxed. “Thank you. Would you like me to escort you to wherever you’re going?”
Everyone in the SUV shouted, “No!” at the same time.
The officer bowed again and walked backward, hunched over, toward his patrol car.
“You can now officially add ‘almost being arrested in America’ to your list of accomplishments.” Amanda laughed hard. “Now you know, some police cars in the States are unmarked.” If there was ever a time Amanda wished she had a camera on her, it was to film the ridiculous scene.
Eddie groaned. “The rental company is going to be hearing from my solicitor about letting us hire a past-due registered vehicle. The experience was utterly embarrassing.” He rubbed his ribs again. “Don’t elbow me like that. It hurt.”
Back to reality, Amanda rubbed the sore spot on Eddie. A jolt of excitement ran through her hand and up her arm. Rubbing Eddie’s chest, she felt the hard ridges of muscle. She wanted to melt into his arms, but she was conflicted. They still didn’t know each other well enough. Why had Eddie frozen like that when the officers pulled them over?
Amanda shrugged. “I’m sorry for doing what I needed to do. Somebody needed to take control of the situation.”
The unlikely group was now really on their way home to Amanda’s apartment. The sun had just begun to set, revealing a beautiful pink and orange sky.
Amanda shook her head. “We could’ve said yes to the escort home. I just hope my groceries haven’t been sitting out too long.” The men in the car remained eerily quiet.
Jonathan had been the most sorry of all the entire drive back. “Sir, please allow me to assume full responsibility.”
“Oh, you must really think you’ve done a shite job if you are ‘siring’ me.” Eddie frowned. “You’ve been with me through some pretty horrid experiences, Jon. This could have happened to anyone.”
The car entered the parking lot of Amanda’s apartment and parked next to her car. “Let’s not tell David or Clara about this. What they don’t know can’t hurt them.” Amanda tried to wink.
Jonathan sighed. “I’m afraid that’s not an option, Miss Collins. I was on the phone with Leeds as soon as we were pulled over. He might have been a little agitated.”
Eddie hunched his shoulders. “If he’s called Father, I’m in for it. I don’t have the world’s best track record.” He remained quiet as the team unloaded the groceries. Surprisingly, Eddie was lending a hand.
He can be taught. Amanda frowned as she reflected on his earlier statement. Why would Eddie or David care about what had happened? It wasn’t Eddie’s fault they were pulled over. It was the rental car company’s fault. Eddie was giving up too easily. It bothered her. She needed to have a chat with him about standing up for himself.
Entering her apartment, Amanda smelled roasting coffee beans. Why did Clara or David want coffee so late in the afternoon? “We’re hooooooooome,” Amanda bellowed.
She threw her keys onto the hook next to her door and entered the living room. Clara sat, typing away on her laptop, resting her feet on David’s lap. He took off his reading glasses and put the magazine he was looking at back on the coffee table. Clara moved her legs without uttering a word as David stood.
David placed his hands behind his back. Amanda laughed to herself. Even when he was “off duty” David insisted on wearing a dress shirt and slacks. His baritone voice sarcastically drawled out, “It appears as if you’ve had an adventurous afternoon. I need to clarify a few details with you, Eddie and Jonathan.”
Amanda didn’t feel the need to involve herself. She had dinner to prep. If they needed her, they could follow the scent of roasting meat to the kitchen. They slipped away.
The heavenly smell of Amanda’s homemade pot roast wafted through the air. Unfortunately, the pork chops were spoiled.
“Good thing I had a roast as plan B.” Amanda pulled the dish out of the oven and checked the temperature. “Looks like dinner is about ready.” She pulled off her apron and pointed out to Eddie where she wanted the plates and utensils placed. Eddie’s continued silence made Amanda wonder if he were mad at her and question what might have been discussed with his cousin.
I’ll pry what I can out of him over dinner. Amanda’s master plan had to work. Southern California in late summer had warm evenings, perfect for eating outside. Tonight, she intended to have dinner with Eddie on her terrace, alone. In her mind, this was their first official date. He just might not know it.
Inside, the salad, side veggies, and meat dish were lined up on the kitchen’s island. Steam rose from the pot roast. Eddie spoke directly to her for the first time since arriving home from the store. “Would you like me to prepare two plates for us before the onslaught?”
He was reading her mind! “Yes, please. We’re on the terrace tonight. Everyone else is on their own.” Amanda left no time for him to ponder their first dinner alone together.
Amanda put her fingers to her lips and let out a shrill whistle. In a manner of moments, three on-duty and two off-duty security men lined up. They could help themselves. Taking Eddie’s hand, she pulled him outside and slid her patio door shut. David and Clara could partake of dinner if they wanted. If not, they were on their own.
They sat down across from one another, hearing the steady traffic from the street behind them. Amanda pulled out her phone, opened her Pandora app, and hit shuffle. “Is Queen okay with you?” She looked to Eddie expectantly.
He leaned back in his chair and rolled his head side to side, releasing some of the tension from his shoulders. “That would be brilliant.”
Amanda found one of her favorite songs and placed her phone on the railing. The terrace was relatively small. The white, round patio table and two plastic chairs took up most of the space. Two planter boxes full of leaf matter and dirt lived on the railing across from the patio door. Amanda had relatively little luck in keeping plants alive with her chaotic schedule as a flight attendant. Her vacation days were just about used up. Come Monday, it was time to return to work.
This conversation needed something Eddie could speak about without thinking, to put him at ease. Amanda took a gamble. “So, the show you, me, David, and Clara had on last night, Top Gear. Is that one of your favorite programs? Are you super into cars?”
The corner of his eyes crinkled in delight. He leaned forward and used his hands to explain about his classic Jaguar and Bentley collection as they ate.
Eddie’s eyes danced in the evening light. He spoke a mile a minute. “My grandfather on my mother’s side always indulged my interest in cars. He worked on them during the war and took to assembling a motor for fun. His garage was always chock-full of the odd automobile parts. Grandmum was always nagging him to downsize his collection. Their estate in Oxfordshire was enormous.” Eddie reverted to a youthful state of excitement sharing his memories with Amanda.
All too quickly they finished the main course. “Your cooking, I’d wager, is even better than my staff can prepare. I’ll be going back to London requiring new clothing from all the weight I’m putting on here.” Eddie paused and patted his flat stomach.
As if Eddie should worry about eating too much. He’s a bottomless pit. Actually, the entire security team is. Amanda couldn’t help but admire the outline of his six-pack peeking through the tight, fitted T-shirt.
Their conversation flowed. Amanda eventually turned to the events earlier in the day. As she was finishing up her lemonade, she questioned, “So what did you and David discuss earlier? You were gone a long time.”
Eddie shrugged. “Not much to hide. David wanted a recounting of what happened. He likes to be aware of any detail of information he can wrap his hands around.”
Amanda nodded. Not the juicy info I was looking for. Time to swoop in like a shark now he’s taken the bait. She began gathering their entrée plates and utensils, and Eddie popped up on his feet to assist.
“I’m just curious,” Amanda asked casually. “Is there a reason you froze in the car today?”
Eddie leaned back in his chair, stretching. Amanda’s eyes lingered for a moment on his rising shirt hem and flash of skin. Heat rushed to her cheeks.
Her focus broke.
Notably missing his answer, she was embarrassed to ask. “Um … can you repeat that, please?”
Eddie raised an eyebrow at Amanda. “My father is strict. Seeing the police today triggered some particularly nasty memories I’m keen to forget. I am supposed to be on my way to being the reformed prince. Not the partying, playboy prince.”
Amanda absorbed the information. Eddie continued, “As of late, I’ve started to take on more responsibilities. Being here in America and speaking with David made me remember I don’t get to be like everyone else.” Eddie leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “I was impressed by you earlier today. What I like about you, Collins, is that you’re spunky, fun, and go with the flow. You make me feel like a regular, old bloke.”
Amanda’s chest tightened. Did he just compliment me?
Eddie stared down at the cold, gray, cement floor of the terrace. Amanda was ready to bolt out of her seat as Eddie cleared his throat. He spoke to the ground. “In all seriousness, what do you say we see where this adventure takes us? Are you up for hanging out and being a friend of the spoiled, alpaca farming Prince of Wales?”
Oh em gee! This is really happening! “Absolutely, Princy. I’ll have to make something clear though. Once I’m in your orbit, you are stuck with me. A Collins remains by a person’s side through and through.”
Eddie laughed and gave her a fist bump.
And I’ve always had a crush on you. I’ll save that information for later. No reason to scare him away yet. “How about we celebrate with dessert and some champagne?”
Eddie’s infectious grin widened, if that were even possible. “Excellent. What did you make for dessert? I’d like to say, as a newfound friend, I should have access to anything you prepare first, before the guys bombard you.” Eddie eagerly held out his plate. “I’ll do the washing up tonight if I need to sweeten the deal.”
Amanda slid the patio door open. Together, they carried their plates to the sink. Eddie also started bringing over the empty trays from the kitchen island.
“Just leave those in the sink. Time for dessert. I made vanilla bean cake pops. Let me say how glad I am that you appreciate my cooking. Normally, I just microwave stuff, but I love that with you all here, everything I make gets eaten with gusto.” Amanda turned around and opened the fridge to pull out the tray of cake pops.
I wonder what type of kitchen Eddie has at his place. He probably has his own chef. He mentioned something about his staff. I should have paid his words more attention rather than staring at him. What I could concoct in an industrial kitchen with double ovens and a large fridge. Amanda swooned at the thought. She loved to be in the kitchen. There was just never enough time in the day for it.
If her father and grandmother hadn’t been involved in aviation, there was a good chance Amanda would have ended up in the restaurant industry. Glancing to the kitchen island, she could see the line of men had already begun cleaning, drying, and putting all the dishes away for her. Her kitchen appeared spotless.
“Boys! It’s dessert time,” Amanda called out. “Princy gets first dibs. I’ll put the extras out on the counter for when you’re done with this. Thank you.”
“Thank you ma’am.” The men nodded.
I’m living in a perfect world right now. Can’t get better than this.